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Bill Shillito: Why I Teach

This is the story of how I fell in love with math, then grew to hate it, and then finally came to love it again.

I started loving math at a very young age, ever since my mother taught me to count (in both English and Spanish!) When I was in kindergarten, I used to watch a math-related show called Square One TV that introduced me to concepts that at the time were far beyond me – fractions, square roots, algebra, the Fibonacci sequence, infinity. It fascinated me, and I soaked it all up like a sponge.

Once I started school, that’s when things really took off. Math was like an infinite fountain, and oh was I thirsty. And the ones who lifted me up to that fountain so that I could drink from it were my teachers. I was lucky to have teachers every year who encouraged me, challenged me, inspired me, fostered and cemented my love of learning.

The one who most inspired me most was Mrs. Poss; she was my teacher for 9th grade Honors Algebra II and again for 11th grade Honors Analysis, as well as the organizer of the math team. Every day I looked forward to her class (even though I occasionally resented how much she made me work and wouldn’t let me off the hook). Mrs. Poss loved math. You could see it in her eyes. You could hear it in her voice. You could feel it in the air. She floated, sometimes almost bounced, around the room as she led us through new, uncharted territory in our minds – and nobody got left behind, because just as Mrs. Poss loved math, so too did she love her students. Her classroom was where we knew we were welcome, where we knew we could grow, where we knew we could succeed.

I remember coming to her one day in 9th grade, convinced that I had finally figured out how to divide by zero. Rather than brushing me off and saying “no, that’s impossible”, like it would have been easy for her to do, she smiled, and said “show me.” When I made my argument to her (which, for the math nerds, basically involved looking at the slope of a line that gets more and more vertical), she smiled even more brightly, and said, “Congratulations. You just discovered limits. You should look into calculus – I bet you’d love it.” There were two results of this. First of all, I went to my local library and checked out “Calculus Made Easy”, and as predicted, I loved it. But more importantly, that moment was when I first thought:

“I want to become a math teacher.”

I graduated high school and entered college as an applied math major, excited to take my love of math to new heights. But when I went to class, something felt different. Something was wrong – very wrong. I was no longer in a warm, inviting classroom with teachers who taught, but in a cold, stoic lecture hall with professors who … well … professed. There was no excitement. There was no beauty. There was no passion. There were only formulas not to forget, calculations to carry out, exams that were exhausting instead of exhilarating. And the worst part is that I believed it was my fault, that I really wasn’t good at math after all. In fact, I hated math. I ended up switching majors to International Affairs and Japanese which, while somewhat interesting, never brought me that same kind of joy as I trudged through the remainder of my four years.

Once I graduated from college, I started applying for jobs, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But as I went from cube farm to cube farm, I knew something was missing. I came to work, clocked in, got whatever the boss told me to done, clocked out, went home, and then did it all over again the next day. Nothing I was doing gave me any sense of purpose. I was just a cog in a wheel. And as a result, these jobs didn’t last very long, whether that was a voluntary decision or an involuntary one.

At some point, while I was particularly frustrated with my job search, I came across a tutoring center that was looking for a math tutor, and I decided to at least give it a shot. But when I began my first session with a couple of students who were addled by algebra, something inside me clicked that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I was in my element. I was excited. I was happy. I was falling in love with math again, but this time from a new perspective. Now I was the guide, helping my students forge paths, cross bridges, maneuver mazes, and climb to new heights. I remembered hearing my teachers talk about that fabled “light-bulb moment”. Well … that moment was real. And it was addictive. I had to have more. There was nothing that had ever been as fulfilling as getting to know my students and getting them from “huh?” to “aha!” With every student who came by my table, I realized more and more that this was what I wanted to do – no, what I was meant to do. From that point on, I focused myself in earnest toward that dream I had once had:

“I want to become a math teacher.”

And now here I am. It’s been a tough journey, and I almost lost sight of my path. But now that I’ve once again rediscovered that path, I’m going to follow it wherever it takes me. And more importantly, I’m going to help my students find their own paths, and do everything I can to help them along the way.

So why do I teach? I teach because I want to be for my students what my teachers were for me. I want to encourage them, to challenge them, to inspire them, to foster and cement in them a love of learning that will last a lifetime.


The Gift Giver
Joe Murphy, Vanderbilt University

To unsettle and alloy that bewilderment with joy

To allow flight and provide an unseen scaffolding of support

To hold tightly while letting go


To correct with precision and warmth

To reveal mysteries and provide ladders for climbing to understanding


To challenge, to exhort, to demand

To push, to pull, to carry

To build, to empower

To respect and acknowledge, to ennoble


To place one’s own heart on the altar and one’s own hands in the fire

To remember the forgotten


To feel, to share

To dance in celebration

To pass into the shadows


To teach


Bill Shillito teaches math at AJA Upper School.

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Dr. Paul Oberman: Lessons Learned in Acting Class

Last night was the culminating night for my acting class. I had memorized and rehearsed a monologue from the play Lunch Hour by Jean Kerr. I had worked on a difficult scene from Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abair with an acting partner—a scene in which we argued about a 4-year-old child we had lost to a car accident. The class had worked together on understanding the inner workings of each character, and the characters’ intentions throughout the scenes. We had worked on movement and voice, tone, and pace. During the last 30 minutes of this final class, we had invited family and friends to watch us in these scenes, so there was an audience of approximately 30 for our ten-person class. So how was I feeling heading into that final half-hour of class? Quite nervous.

The irony is that I’ve been involved in much bigger productions before. In college I played a bit role in a musical, a more substantial role in a play about the Holocaust, and the lead in a two-person play about college roommates. Since that time I have periodically been asked to play extremely minor roles in student productions at schools where I have taught. (My favorite role allowed me to have ONLY the very last line in a two-hour play by simply walking on stage and announcing “I’m home!” I then took a bow with the rest of the cast, feeling very guilty for receiving any applause at all.) These plays were in front of audiences numbering in the hundreds.

So why was I so nervous now, performing in front of my family plus a few strangers? As I reflected on that question, I came up with reasons that tie into our philosophy of education at AJA.

  • I wasn’t as well prepared as I like to be. We hadn’t had long to learn our lines, get to know our blocking, or even our acting partners. I like to really know the roles I’m playing, including how my characters grew up, their likes and dislikes, and even what time they wake up on a typical day. Lesson: The best and most comfortable learning takes place when you dive into a topic deeply over a period of time.

  • I didn’t know the other members of the class or the teacher all that well, and they didn’t know me too well. Don’t get me wrong—in spite of the 30-year age gap between the youngest members of the class and me, we all liked each other quite a bit. We just didn’t know each other. Lesson: The best and most comfortable learning takes place when you really know the others in the classroom and are known by them.

  • It’s okay to be nervous. Seinfeld used to joke that because the fear of public speaking is the #1 fear in the U.S., above even the fear of death, you would actually be doing someone a favor by killing them before they had to speak in front of a group! I was certainly nervous back then—yes, even for my one-line performance—and there is no reason I shouldn’t have been nervous this time. Lesson: Good (and fun!) learning can still take place even when you experience nerves!

As I anticipate the start of the school year—and, simultaneously, the start of my stand-up comedy class—I will continue to reach back to the lessons I learn as a student in my various forays into continuing education. See you soon!

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Dr. Paul Oberman: Now I'm a New Student, Too!

Last night, I participated in my first acting class at The Alliance Theater. As I entered the classroom environment, I was reminded of all that it means to be a new student: the excitement, the nerves, the eagerness to learn, and the concern about how I will stack up compared to my classmates. I also had a couple of other things on my mind that were somewhat unique to my situation. Because I had my kippah on, I wondered whether everyone would assume that I represented all observant Jews. Because I am recovering from toe surgery, I worried that my movement and participation would be hampered and/or painful. Finally, because this class is for working adults, it is fairly late in the evening, which I know is not my best time in terms of concentration.

The truth is that I signed up for this class for two primary reasons—1) because I am passionate about the theater and performing, and 2) because it’s important that, as a key leader at AJA, I know first-hand what it’s like to be a student. It’s especially relevant to be a student in an area where I do not already excel, as this is the situation our children find themselves in with some regularity. As Wendy Mogel explains in Blessings of a Skinned Knee, high school is really the last time we expect expertise in every area. Even though we would not ask our accountant questions about cell division or our doctor questions about integration by parts, we expect our children to excel across the board. Sometimes it’s just not that simple, as I was reminded again last night. Every student brings his or her own baggage (“My toe hurts. It’s late at night and I am tired. Are my classmates professional actors? Boy, am I nervous!”), and sometimes, questions his or her own abilities. 

It’s too easy to sit back and say of our own students, “he could do better if he only would.” In fact, as Ross Greene of Harvard Medical School reminds us, it’s usually the other way around: “he would do better if he only could.” (Carol Ann Tomlinson, “Rising to the Challenge of Challenging Behavior,” Educational Leadership, October 2012). As Mel Levine also reminds us in his book, with the self-explanatory title The Myth of Laziness, students want to please and do their best, and students have a natural curiosity about things, so it’s too easy to simply say “s/he is lazy.”

All of which brings me back to last night’s class. I was by no means the best; not even close. But the teacher singled me out briefly for kind words, and that made a difference. It felt like for that moment, the teacher understood that I was trying, that it didn’t necessarily come naturally, but that I was doing it. It reminded me yet again that “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” (Theodore Roosevelt and others; italics mine). I also got some nice feedback from classmates, and was able to reciprocate as we worked together to learn something new.

By the time the school year starts, I will be able to reflect back on this class and the lessons I have learned anew about being a student. And don’t worry…I already have plans for my next class! I’m enrolled in a class on stand-up comedy, and will be coming soon to an open mic near you!

I hope you are having a wonderful summer, and I am so looking forward to this next year with all of you!

Dr. Paul Oberman


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Embracing the Excitement of Change: AJA Middle School Graduation Address by Ian Ratner, Chairman of the Board

Dear graduates, families, rabbaim, faculty, administrators, and friends, this is an exciting evening, and celebrates a significant milestone in your life. Thank you for letting me share it with you.

My name is Ian Ratner, I am the President of the Board of Trustees of the Atlanta Jewish Academy, and I love this school.

I have been blessed to have three children graduate from AJA Lower School, just like these fine young adults here tonight; and one who will be on this stage, G-d willing, next year, on June 1st, 2016. (Yes, there will be a Grade 8 graduation next year). Two of my children have also graduated the Upper School, and one is a rising 11th grader.

As you see, Carol and I have partnered with AJA on raising our children, and we have not been disappointed.

I have served on countless committees, been on and off the Board a few times, and was once president of the school during a hard time. I hold the record as the worst Middle School girls basketball coach ever. And, like you, I have invested significant financial resources here.

There is a certain special chemistry that goes on within the walls of this school. It is:

  • part Jewish education,

  • part Zionism and love of our heritage,

  • part tefillah,

  • part love and kindness from the extraordinary staff, from the nurse to Felice at the front door;

  • part the amazing secular studies program, which is often underrated; and

  • part great friends and community.

The combination results in a wonderful place to have your children mature and be nurtured during their formative years. The proof is sitting on the stage with me tonight.

Many of these fine young teens have grown up together:

  • attended kindergarten together,

  • celebrated Colonial Festival together,

  • received their first siddur or chumash together,

  • played Middle School sports together,

  • attended each other’s bar and bat mitzvahs,

  • traveled to Israel together, and

  • taken leadership roles in the play and other extracurricular activities.

They sit here tonight, unified, and a shining example of hope for our future.

Many will stay on for high school at AJA Upper School. Others will start new chapters of their lives at other private and public schools in the area. One thing I know about these kids is that they are not afraid of change.

In Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4, in the very first Mishnah, Ben Zoma says, "Who is wise?  He who learns from every person.” What does this mean?

The commentators tell us that someone who is wise can always learn, even from someone with less wisdom.

In other words, being wise is not being satisfied with the status quo, but knowing that every new interaction, every new situation brings opportunity for growth and improvement and, by definition, change.

We have all changed. None of us are the same people we were when we first walked into this building and dropped off our kids at pre-K or kindergarten. We are not the same as we were when we got married, or started our careers. Hopefully, we have grown and changed for the better.

This school, our cherished AJA, is also about change and growth.  

The AJA Lower School and its predecessor, Greenfield Hebrew Academy, can have a transformative impact on our lives. In my own life, AJA has enhanced my relationship with G-d, my relationship with my family, and certainly, some of my strongest friendships have been built within these walls.

Our growth as a school and as an institution continues, as it has in the past.

In July 2014, the Boards of the former GHA and Yeshiva Atlanta voted to merge the schools, and we are rapidly completing our first year as the first infant through Grade 12 Jewish day school in Atlanta. We will become the centerpiece of Jewish education in Atlanta by having a fully integrated school, offering a serious Jewish and secular education on par with the top day schools in the country.

Change can be scary. Our ancestors went through more than their fair share,

  • from being slaves in Egypt to relying on their faith to win their freedom,

  • from wandering in the desert to conquering the Promised Land to building rich and diverse communities in Europe and other parts of the world;

  • from surviving the unthinkable during the Holocaust to carving out a modern day state in Israel and a dynamic Jewish community in America.

Our forefathers were not scared of change; they embraced it and MADE THINGS HAPPEN. As long as they stayed close to their faith, belief in G-d, family, and community, they were able to change and grow successfully.

We must do the same. We can change and grow successfully as long as we stay close to our history and community—to the chemistry that I referred to earlier.

The young adults on this stage are not afraid of change. They are excited by it and ready to grow. We should be, too.

Our expansion and change will result in a state-of-the-art campus for all in the heart of Sandy Springs. Students in the Lower School who need more challenges will have the benefit of top high school teachers around the corner. An integrated curriculum will ensure a complete and thorough education, building on achievements from year to year. The energy and enthusiasm of teens singing, and dancing, and running Onegs for their brothers and sisters in the Lower School will echo in the corridors, adding excitement and vibrancy to the school. Enthusiastic cheering at sports events will ring through the halls. Excellent role models will be everywhere in sight. This educational model has been proven successful around the country, in both Jewish and non-Jewish private school environments.

It’s our turn!

  • Change is exciting.

  • Change is transformative.

  • Change gives us the chance to grow, and expand our horizon, and reshape our destiny.

Just look at how your own child, sitting on this stage tonight, has changed and grown over the last few years.

Mazel tov, and have a wonderful evening.

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The Big Question: AJA Upper School Graduation Address by Ian Ratner, President of the Board

Dear friends, rabbaim, teachers, administrators, parents, family members, guests and, of course, our graduates, welcome to you all.

My name is Ian Ratner, and I am the first president of the AJA Board of Trustees, and friend to many of you.

I am thrilled to be participating in the first graduation ceremony of the Atlanta Jewish Academy. You students spent the year at the Raymond Drive campus and although physically, things are only now starting to change, you are part of the foundation of a totally new school, a school that will soon become the centerpiece of serious Jewish and secular education in the Atlanta Jewish community. As the first nursery through 12th grade private Jewish day school in Atlanta, with a clear mission and vision, we are well on our way, and we have completed a phenomenal first year.

I meet young families all the time, and they wonder whether our school is the right choice for them—or even whether Jewish schools in general are the way to go. They consider all the different variables that young families focus on, such as:

  • the exact student/teacher ratio;

  • the exact number of minutes (or hours) of the Hebrew curriculum per day (or week);

  • the amount of time set aside for lunch (or recess);

  • whether recess is at the same time every day;

  • which math book the third grade teacher uses;

  • why the carpool line starts in this place or that;

  • whether their child will do the same projects that other kids in the same grade do in different classes;

  • and on and on and on…..

You know what I mean.

However, I often find myself daydreaming, focusing on the BIGGER QUESTION…and sometimes, depending on how I am feeling that particular day, I actually ask them that BIG QUESTION:

“How do you want your five or six year old to turn out when someday, he or she graduates high school?”

The response to my BIG QUESTION is often surprise—or, “I don’t know…I haven’t thought about it.”

From this night forward, I will go on to invite these parent or prospective parent to the next AJA Upper School graduation—like this very first one, TONIGHT. This is a much better strategy than responding to twenty different operational questions that, frankly, don’t even matter in the Big Picture.

Friends, tonight is the answer to the BIG QUESTION.

The program tonight includes detailed biographies for each graduate, and they are stunning. These graduates—like the many Yeshiva Atlanta graduating classes that came before and, G-d willing, the AJA graduating classes that will come in the future—are the answers to the BIG QUESTION.

The biographies paint a picture of well adjusted, knowledgeable young adults with high Jewish self esteem who are ready to take on the world as leaders in our communities, our businesses, our governments, and our world.

Members of the graduating class have been accepted to such fine universities as the University of Alabama, Barnard College, Boston University, Brandeis University, DePaul University, University of Georgia, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, Rutgers University, SUNY-Binghamton, Touro College, and Yeshiva University.

This year’s seniors have made an indelible mark on the school and on their own community.

Student Council was led by Samuel Kalnitz and Zoe Ogden, and I understand it was one of the most active student councils ever.

  • They brought in an ice cream truck;

  • took over community time and made it a real event;

  • ran an Instagram contest;

  • ran a contest to produce a new school fight song;

  • instituted "Jag Swag Days" every other Wednesday, when students could wear shirts with jaguars or other AJA logos on them;

  • and the list goes on and on.

Seniors were also instrumental in:

  • Chagiga;

  • the spring play, “The Third Wave”;

  • Peer Leadership, a group that incorporated nearly half the class (12 out of 28);

  • Career Fair; and

  • my personal favorite, “Purimpalooza.”

There were boys and girls basketball tournament trips, a midterm trip to Stone Mountain, volleyball, etc., etc.

For a small school, we have lots and lots of extracurricular activities, and the seniors make many of them happen…and HUM.

Many of our students will take a gap year in Israel.

We have young men going to:

  • Mevaseret,

  • Lev Hatorah, and

  • Derech Etz Chaim

We have young ladies going to:

  • Nishmat,

  • Machon Maayan,

  • Midreshet Moriah,

  • Midreshet Lindenbaum,

  • Midreshet Harova,

  • Migdal Oz,

  • Emunah Vi'Omanut, and

  • Midreshet Yeud

This past year, we celebrated amazing academic achievements at AJA, and the senior class led the way.

There are 28 students in the Class of 2015, and 24 of them took the SAT. Of these,

  • seven students scored over 1900 on the SAT,

  • two scored over 2000,

  • and the highest score was 2220.

These are amazing statistics!

  • Thirteen seniors are members of the National Honor Society, which requires a minimum GPA of 3.70.

  • In four years, the Class of 2015 completed 2900 hours of Service Learning.

  • Finally, in January of 2015, twenty-five seniors pre-qualified for the HOPE Scholarship. How many schools in Atlanta can say that almost the entire graduating class pre-qualified for HOPE? Not many.

These facts mark a tremendous achievement, and are something of which we all can be very proud.

I wish that more of those young parents I spoke about earlier were here tonight….

In my mind, the answer to the BIG QUESTION is the best thing that a parent could ever hope for. We are graduating amazing young adults who have developed the Jewish skills, Jewish lifestyles, and academic prowess to compete in the larger world and succeed, wherever they find themselves.

Mazel tov to all of you…and thank you for being the BIG ANSWER to the BIG QUESTION.

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